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DJI Mavic Air review: A folding 4K mini drone that's close to perfect

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Pull down the mobile device holders on the controller and you'll find its removable sticks. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

The thing is, even pilots who know how to control a drone still get into trouble with obstacles. That's where the Mavic Air's system of seven -- seven! -- built-in cameras and infrared sensors comes into play, helping to map the drone's environment so it knows just where it is and where obstacles are as well. 

The Mavic Air can avoid flying into obstacles in front, beneath and below it. But what's new in the Air is that it can go over or around obstacles automatically using its new Advanced Pilot Assistance Systems, or APAS. To test out the system I flew it straight toward a waterfall and next toward a stone wall and every time it automatically went up and over the obstacle. So then I did what any good reviewer would do: I flew it directly at myself. This time instead of going up and over, it stopped and slowly flew around me.  

Even with the APAS off, the sensors will trigger a warning on the screen letting you know you're getting a little too close to something or someone. The thing to remember is there are no sensors on the sides or on top, so flying up, say under a tree canopy, will still cause you to crash. (The Air also has trouble seeing bare tree branches.) The sensors don't work in Sport mode, either. Still, if you want a small drone that will save you from yourself, this is your best bet. 

New drone, new camera

On paper, the Air's camera might look like it's the same as the one in the Mavic Pro, but DJI used a new image processor to handle things like creating 32-megapixel panoramic photos (and the aforementioned Asteroid QuickShot) and recording 4K-resolution video at up to 30 frames per second at a bit rate of 100Mbps. Among the other frame rate options are 2.5K at up to 60fps and full HD at up to 120fps for slow motion. High bit rates and fast frame rates result in big files, though, and while DJI built in 8GB of storage (and a USB-C port to quickly transfer your files off), you'll want to have a card for its microSD slot. 

The high-bit-rate 4K video looks sharp and is loaded with fine detail. You will get the best results flying in daylight and the small sensor costs you some dynamic range. If you want better, you'll need to step up to the much less travel-friendly Phantom 4 ($1,692 at Amazon) Advanced or Pro. Though the tiny Air does get tossed around a bit in high winds, you wouldn't know it from the video. The three-axis motorized gimbal keeps the camera balanced and the video looking smooth. 

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All the flight modes are a tap away. 

Joshua Goldman/CNET

Although DJI played up the QuickShot and SmartCapture modes for the Air's launch, the drone has other video options. Tripod, for example, drops the speed of the drone down to a crawl so you can more easily get the framing you want, while Cinematic extends the stopping distance so you don't get jerking movements in your video. 

ActiveTrack on the Air is capable of detecting up to 16 subjects to track. Tap on a subject and it will follow from behind or the side. I found it works best on slow-moving targets in a small open area and at lower altitudes. (Think kids playing soccer and not bombing downhill on a longboard surrounded by trees.) It can track faster-moving subjects like bikes and cars, but they still need to be moving relatively slowly and in a straight path without anything obstructing the drone's vision. 

Best travel drone you can buy right now

As is the case with any camera, the smaller a drone is, the easier it is to travel with, the more likely you are to take it with you. That's how we all ended up ditching regular cameras for the ones in our phones, after all. The size is no doubt the most immediately remarkable thing about the Mavic Air, but once you realize all the tech crammed into it, you realize where your $800 went. Battery life is always shorter than we want it to be, but if you want a safe, stable camera drone for more than occasional, casual use, this is the one you want. 

Correction, 1 p.m. PT: A firmware update on Feb. 9 added support for using SmartCapture without a remote controller and DJI Go 4 app.

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